20 Questions for The Little Owl's Joey Campanaro

A collection of thoughts from a would-be FBI agent turned chef.

March 9, 2016 ● 5 min read

After a three-hour lunch at San Francisco's iconic Zuni Café, right around the corner from ChefsFeed HQ, New York City's Joey Campanaro is roped into a sleepy afternoon round of 20 Questions.   

1. What’s the one word you want your customers to say after their last bite?


2. Were you pissed off when the show Friends [The Little Owl occupies the ground floor of the iconic apartment building] ruined the name Joey forever?

No! Not at all. It’s not ruined forever. I love it when people come in and ask if Joey’s there.  

3. What’s the one dish your mom made for you growing up that you now do better?

Ooh. That’s gonna get me in trouble. Meatballs. Eggplant Parmesan. Spaghetti and clams.

4. What single personal vice did you think you would have grown out of by now?


5. What’s the one restaurant in the world you’ve been dying to try and have not yet?

Gary Danko’s restaurant.  

6. If you could buy a vast quantity of one food with say, $5 million, what would it be?


7. What is the most memorable experience you’ve ever had with a stranger?

I was on a school trip from Philadelphia to New York, and the bus let us off right at Cooper Union in East Village. It’s like 1989, and it was me and four of my greaseball friends were out on the street, smoking a joint. Some guy came up to us, knew we were teenagers, and goes, “You smoking a joint?” We go, “Uh, yeah,” and he goes, “Gimme that joint!” Took it, smoked it. Says, “What are you guys doin'?” We’re just hangin’ out in New York, we say. He says, let’s go get a beer. So he took us all to this bar. So he takes us to McSorely's. I walked in, and ran straight to the bathroom because I was so nervous—I’m the youngest, because I always hung out with older kids. I eventually did get carded, and just put my hands under the table, and there are like three or four people handing me their cards under the table. I didn’t know what else to do, so I just handed one over. It was the best time ever.  

8. What’s the most vivid dream you’ve had recently?

I have a recurring dream, and it has to do with a chain-link fence that’s laying over green grass, and I’m crawling on it. But there’s water underneath. And then, at one point, there’s no more chain-link fence, it’s just grass and I’m crawling on that. And then, I decide, because I know there’s more water underneath, that I’m going to dive right in. There’s no fence, there’s no grass, and I’m underwater. It’s been like that for a long time. The last two times I was around a psychic, they both asked me to let them not tell me what it meant.  

9. What’s the boldest thing you’ve ever done for love?

Where I was just not going to take no for an answer? Moving to New York City from Los Angeles. I totally fell in love, and ended up marrying that girl. There were 600 people at our wedding, which was in a small town in Spain. There was a parade.  

10. Favorite expression?

If at first you don’t succeed, keep on sucking 'til you do succeed. And then the other one is, a good run is better than a bad stand.  

11. If you could get abducted by aliens, where would you want them to take you?

To the beach! Straight to the beach.  

12. What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

To ask yourself if you love it. That’s a really hard thing to do. In life, if you ask yourself that question, it really makes you decide what you’re going to do next.  

13. What’s the best advice you’ve given someone that they haven’t taken?

To be specific, “Don’t marry that girl.” In turn, it’s also the best advice that was taken.  

14. Do you keep in touch with people from your childhood?



15. What was the first record you ever bought?

It was probably a Squeeze album.  

16. Thoughts on mayonnaise?

Mayo is a derivative of techniques from the five mother sauces. So in itself, it is a mother sauce. It’s totally legit. It’s not just a condiment, and you can use it for cooking. You can marinate things in it and cook it, then it’s transformed into something different, which does great things for whatever you put it on. Say you’ve got a whole fish, and you don’t know what you’re going to do with it. You go to your fridge, and you’ve got mayonnaise and basil, and anchovies, and broken olives with pimentos. You stick all that in a food processor, put it on the fish, and then bake that fish? You know how fuckin’ good that fish is gonna taste? That’s when necessity is allowed to be the mother of invention, and there’s nothin’ wrong with that. It also helps cooks with the biggest thing missing in a kitchen, which is confidence. 

17. If you weren’t cooking, what would you be doing with your life?

I think about that all the time. Mostly because I know lots of people who don’t know what they want to do. In my career, I knew what I wanted to do and I did it. What’s amazing about the career that I’m in is that it always grows, and it’s not a career where you can say you know everything, because once you do, you’re pretty much done…but I’d love to be an architect. I was into law enforcement for awhile. Thought I was going to be an FBI agent. But I wouldn’t want to be a teacher. Being a teacher is a heartbreaking thing. For me, addiction is the most heartbreaking thing I could ever witness, and when you teach, you commit to people when you can’t ever be in control of their situations. Plus I feel like I let down a lot of my teachers that believed in me, because I just didn’t give a shit about the course.

18. What are your rules for restaurant spaces?

First, no staircase. You cannot walk into a space, and be met by a staircase. In New York, and in Philly, there’s lots of weird buildings, so those opportunities come up where you walk into a place and there’s bad Chi, so you stay away from it.  

P.S. 3, and the Mattel House, across the street from The Little Owl. Keystones, check. Rust red, check. Little owls, check. | Image via Google Maps. 

19. Do you have a favorite building or structure? 

Caddy corner to Little Owl, there’s a really old building that’s a school. P.S. 3, it’s called. It’s one of the coolest buildings ever. I’m a big fan of form and function, so on the facades of buildings, there’s certain things that builders will do to make their building stand out. Being from Philadelphia, I’ve always been a fan of keystones. When I designed the inside of the restaurant, there are the same lines, and the same rust color as the house across the street, which was built by the Mattel family. The last person I knew that owned it was the creator of Three’s Company. That’s something I wanted to capture. On top of that building, there’s a little owl. That’s what I named the restaurant for. 

20. What are you most excited about in New York right now?

Mario Batali’s restaurant in the Maritime Hotel. 

Original image of Campanaro via Grub Street | Collage by ChefsFeed